Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

From Paris with Love

French intellectuals love George W. Bush

These days it seems that any American who can hold a pen is busily pelting the White House with books unmasking the turpitude of the Boeotians running the Oval Office. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, French intellectuals are writing billets-doux to dear Dubya. This approbation may seem bizarre, considering that just last spring France and President Chirac suffered a harsh “frog bashing” for refusing to join in a group run on Baghdad. The present situation is best understood, though, as the latest chapter in the history of dangerous liaisons that these two countries have engaged in for over two hundred years. As Eric Dior writes in Un couple infernal, the theme song of this Parisian literary season might very well be “Let’s fall in love again . . . ”

“American morality seems to me an abominable vulgarity,” Stendhal wrote in his unfinished classic Lucien Leuwen. “ . . . This model country seems to me the triumph of the most stupid and egoistic mediocrity, and we must court it, on pain of perishing.” Stendhal was hardly alone in his criticisms. Indeed, anti-Americanism constitutes its own distinct genre in French literature. Almost every writer since Stendhal has contributed, including Baudelaire (notwithstanding his translations of Edgar Allan Poe), Victor Hugo and Jean-Paul Sartre, who in a 1953 editorial expressed the now gospel view on what to expect from the sister republic: “America has rabies. Let us sever all our links with her, or else we too shall be bitten and become rabid.”

For their part, Americans have learned to indulge in the delightful art of detesting the French. Whereas Jefferson was once ready to offer a green card to anyone from Molière’s country, France-carping has now reached such heights in the US that nobody raises an eyebrow when former New York City mayor Ed Koch  ends his radio show, as he regularly does, with the mangled quotation, “Omni Gaul delenda est” (“All France must be destroyed”). Fortunately, such disagreements are generally put aside as soon as one side shows up with a bouquet of violets; everyone pretends to forgive and forget. 

Such mutual memory lapses play a key role in this love-hate relationship. Entirely disregarding the Russians’ role in defeating the Nazis, Americans are quick to point out that the French would probably be asking for their croissants in German today, had it not been for the US intervention in World War II. 

The perception is entirely different from the baguette-eater’s perspective: America exists thanks to the crucial help of the Marquis de Lafayette. How, the French ask themselves, can this inextinguishable debt ever be forgotten by those greenhorns in short pants playing on the sandy banks of the Potomac?

The turbulent relationship entered a new chapter last spring, with France’s unwillingness to enlist with Mongolia, the Kingdom of Tonga, Costa Rica and the Marshall Islands in the US-UK coalition against Iraq. Washington’s disbelief acquired a comical grandeur: anything bearing the tricolour instantly was torn to pieces and Congress decided that french fries had to be urgently renamed “freedom fries.” Anyone who has so much as rested an elbow on the counter of a bistro in Montmartre can imagine how rapidly all this became the standing joke of happy hour.

Meanwhile in New York, Los Angeles and San Antonio, numerous French entrepreneurs, fearing public lynching, pretended that they were from Quebec. Many succeeded in fooling clients who didn’t quite make the connection that Quebec was part of Canada, and that their northern neighbor had also refused to march on Mesopotamia. Which leads to another interesting observation about the relationship between the cock and the eagle: Canada and Germany, both members of this clan of peace, have nearly been forgiven by Washington, yet Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s top adviser, still insists that France needs a spanking.

Some have a different view of the Franco-American spat. Eric Dior, for one, believes that the day will come when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will have his own thank-you statue on the Champs Élysées. 

“Before Rumsfeld, our influence and our prestige seemed to be lost forever . . . But a country capable of inspiring such intense sentiments has certainly not fallen entirely into insignificance." 

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So, after a little tiff, a little war and a little bondage fun, love is back in the air—at least in the literary salons of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A year ago, it was next to impossible for French intellectuals not to stand against the invasion of Iraq. But now the war is a fait accompli, and the positivists of the left bank are ready for a renewed romance with their dearest enemy.

This French goodwill is noteworthy because it contrasts so dramatically with the American backlash to the war. Anti-Bush books have sprung up like mushrooms in the North American forest, but if you are in the City of Lights, forget about reading Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose’s Bushwhacked, Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s my Country? or David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. All are best-selling items at Barnes & Noble branches across the US, but none have yet made the jump across the Atlantic.

The most unconditional declaration of love for the United States is currently being sung by a newcomer to the French media, Guy Millière, who happens to have worked for a number of American think tanks, most notably the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, two highly influential right-wing organizations that advocate the urgent and permanent need for American world hegemony. In his book Ce que veut Bush (What Bush Wants)—dedicated to Ronald Reagan, his beloved mentor—Millière advocates a complete surrender to American supremacy. On page after page, he presses Washington to take on the world and proclaims the urgent need for a new “global war.” Even the Republican Party would be embarrassed by the fulsomeness of this panegyric. 

Millière, a long-time admirer of Margaret Thatcher, practically drools in the face of the new imperial splendour. He defines “American” as “the courage to fight for freedom, the spirit of heroism and the spirit of enterprise, the pride of belonging to a civilization of pioneers.” “Not American” is “everything in the opposite column.” According to this jolly sycophant, what Bush wants, God certainly wants too.

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A more peaceful—yet still loving—note is sounded by Yves Berger’s Dictionnaire amoureux de l’Amérique. (The book was due out last spring, but was postponed because of the war.) Long-time tsar of Grasset, a top publishing house in Paris, Berger has always entertained blissful admiration for even the smallest shard of the American dream. The headings of his “amorous dictionary,” though, are a succession of pop clichés that show how widely his fascination with the New World ranges: Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Mitchell, Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, monarch butterflies, ornithologist John James Audubon, Greyhound buses. As candid as his vision of America might sound, Berger displays a disconcerting gullibility. Always taking his beloved’s side, he explains to his compatriots that the whole Native American question has been misunderstood. Knowing that this issue has historically been a cause of anti-Americanism, he pleads that there was never a Native American genocide and points out the role played by smallpox in decimating the aboriginal population. Berger’s adulation is such that he could probably legitimize Washington’s early support of the Taliban regime. 

As for Bush, Berger is full of hope. He acknowledges that the president’s lack of culture can be “unfathomable,” but argues that “W.” is “manly” and a glorious military figure. Bush ranks pretty low in Berger’s pantheon, but has the potential to become nothing less than a “king” if he can introduce democracy in Iraq, settle the Israeli-Palestinian question and spend—as he said he would—a billion dollars to fight world hunger. If, on top of this, Bush manages to run the hundred-metre sprint in less than 9.8 seconds and dance Drosselmeyer’s part in the Houston Ballet’s next production of The Nutcracker, I might be forced to agree.

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Philosopher André Glucksmann was the odd man out when he sided with the Americans last spring. Now it seems that he simply misread his invitation and showed up early for the lovefest. Glucksmann recently reaffirmed his position in his best-selling book L’Ouest contre l’Ouest (West against West). As a member of the fading nouveaux philosophes group (Bernard-Henri Lévy is the most notorious member of this school of self-proclaimed “elite” thinkers that emerged in the seventies) and a volunteer for just about every humanitarian crusade over the last three decades, the intellectual guru had a legitimate chance of being taken seriously. Many took notice when he jumped into the debate. Before we all laughed ourselves silly, that is. 

Determined to go to every possible length to justify the invasion of Iraq, Glucksmann truly gives the impression that he’s off his rocker. Ridiculing the United Nations and all the “mentally retarded” people who dare talk of peace when it is self-evidently time to use force, he praises the wonderful new “smart” bombs that allowed a “clean war”; as evidence he points to the “insignificant” human losses for the coalition. 

Perhaps the most audacious part of the book, though, comes when Glucksmann bends over backwards with acrobatic declarations of love for Bush. After Nagasaki, he reminds us, Sartre said, “Each morning we will be on the eve of the end of time.” More recently, Bush has proclaimed that “time is not on our side.” Struck by this correspondence, the French thinker wonders if the true George W. isn’t a subconscious existentialist. But this isn’t enough. No, the truth is that Bush is Shakespearean, since Hamlet’s creator has written a similar prophecy: “The time is out of joint.” 

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Blushing at such praise, President Bush could turn instead to a more impersonal study, Alain Hertoghe’s La Guerre à outrances (The Outrageous War), which blasts the French media for its coverage of the three-week blitz war. After analyzing the front pages and content of five dailies during that period, the Web journalist concludes that the Gallic press was unfair in its coverage of the American side.

While acknowledging the importance of a century-long tradition of journalistic secularism, Hertoghe underlines the extreme nature of some comments that appeared in the French press; for instance, regularly equating Bush with Bin Laden by arguing that they both call on God as their inspiration for violence. Quoting a title from Figaro (“American Jihad”) and an article from Le Monde on “The Shock of Two Fundamentalisms,” Hertoghe points out that “God Bless America” became synonymous with “Allahu Akbar” for many French journalists reporting on the conflict. His book also vividly demonstrates that the French fourth estate has time and again been reluctant to side against public opinion, which in this case overwhelmingly supported Chirac’s decision to oppose the war.

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While many French intellectuals are giddy with rediscovered love, there are still some predicting the end of the affair. These doubters are given their due in Pierre Hassner and Justin Vaïsse’s impressive summary of the various responses to Washington’s foreign policy, Washington et le monde: Dilemmes d’une superpuissance (Washington and the World: Dilemmas of a Superpower).

Hassner and Vaïsse, both specialists in American studies, remind us that opposing moral concepts were an important element of the recent controversy between the US and France. If, after the tragedy of September 11, Europeans were ready to show solidarity and stand fast under the “We are all Americans” cry sounded by the French newspaper Le Monde, they are now disappointed by Washington’s two-speed vision of justice. Europeans are not prepared to blindly endorse the United States’ new tendency to break the rules of the international game any time it feels like doing so. Nor can they approve of the illegal treatment of the alleged al-Qaeda members detained at the American base in Guantánamo Bay. And the whole Manichaean perspective of the “axis of evil” turns out to be like Bordeaux: it doesn’t travel well overseas. 

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Laurent Murawiec also has his doubts about the Bush administration, but only because he believes that the United States should be concentrating its military might on Saudi Arabia instead of on Iraq. Murawiec made the news last year with a presentation he gave to the Defense Policy Board, the influential Pentagon advisory group formerly headed by Richard Perle. In his talk, this geostrategy analyst for Rand Corp. (one of the most influential American think tanks) pointed an accusing finger firmly at Riyadh. His report was unequivocal: the US might want to go to war against Saddam, but the true enemy is the House of Saud. 

A few weeks later, his comments were leaked to the press and everyone wanted to know if America was preparing to march on Mecca. There was a flurry of calls between the red phone of the White House and the gold telephones of each and every fat prince of the oil paradise, and Washington scrambled to disavow the suddenly famous Murawiec. Perle claimed he had no prior knowledge of the content of the presentation. The Rand Corp. distanced itself from its analyst; within a month, Murawiec left Rand, insisting that he had not been fired. 

Murawiec has made good use of his free time. In an explosive account of his anti-Saudi convictions, La Guerre d’après (The Next War), he bombs Riyadh with every verbal missile at his disposal and prays that Washington will soon follow up with more tangible weapons.

His book reads like an episode of Dallas. You get the Rolls-Royces, the mad terrorists, the cheap millionaires and the obscure lobby of the oil industry. Since Murawiec has never once set foot in an Arab country, though, his account is rather lacking in credibility. That’s unfortunate because, crazy as his excessive diatribes may sound, there are some fascinating truths here about how hate is cultivated in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, so long as every schoolboy in the motherland of Wahhabism is taught that killing a Jew or a Westerner is the key to immortality, the cause of terrorism will flourish like diamonds on Elizabeth Taylor’s fingers. 

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Unlike the bellicose Murawiec, Tzvetan Todorov enters the debate as a man of peace. With Le Nouveau Désordre mondial (The New World Disorder), this respected historian and philosopher—a Bulgarian who has lived in France for the past forty years—examines the American pretext for going to war and exhumes some overlooked evidence. If Saddam Hussein did in fact possess so-called weapons of mass destruction, why did he not use them after having been warned for over a year that Iraq would be attacked? The very fact that he never did, argues Todorov, now proves how wrong the coalition was from the start. 

Todorov compares America to “a boxer trying to kill a bunch of mosquitoes without taking off his gloves” and suggests that the laser missiles and cluster bombs should have given way to more appropriate methods (network infiltration, phone-tapping, spying, kidnapping or even the execution of the most dangerous Iraqi elements). Stressing the fact that the troops of the Texan sheriff were never in a position to enter a plea of self-defence, the old philosopher rejects Glucksmann’s logic concerning the “insignificant” number of human casualties. 

In many ways, Todorov can’t ignore that, in affirming the superiority of peace over war and hoping that law and diplomacy will triumph over brute force, he will appear to many a rare utopian. Yet, in a very real sense, he is now the one endorsing the authentic and original American dream.

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The long relationship between Paris and Washington has always been danced to a tempestuous tango melody; the many missteps have made this old couple famous. When de Gaulle slammed the door in NATO’s face in 1966, many were expecting a permanent separation. And when Chirac and his suave foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said no to marching on Iraq, some really believed that was the end. Reading the books hitting the French bookstores this season, it’s clear that the dance is far from over, despite the catcalls from the audience. Anybody who wants to understand these oddest of lovers would be wise to listen to Jimmy Durante or Dooley Wilson. Yes, as time goes by, the fundamental things apply. It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory. But no matter what the future brings, you must remember this: whether it is called “French” or “freedom,” a kiss will always be just a kiss.

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Yves Berger, Dictionnaire amoureux de l’Amérique (Plon)

Eric Dior, Un couple infernal: 200 ans de francophobie et d’antiaméricanisme (Perrin)

André Glucksmann, L’Ouest contre l’Ouest (Plon)

Pierre Hassner et Justin Vaïsse, Washington et le monde: Dilemmes d’une superpuissance (Autrement)

Alain Hertoghe, La Guerre à outrances: Comment la presse nous a désinformés sur l’Irak (Calmann-Lévy)

Guy Millière, Ce que veut Bush: La Recomposition du monde (La Martinière)

Laurent Murawiec, La Guerre d’après (Albin Michel)

Tzvetan Todorov, Le Nouveau Désordre mondial: Réflexions d’un Européen (Robert Laffont)

All books are from 2003.